On most campuses, and in most years, the job of a Hillel student president has been pretty straightforward: Make sure Jewish college students are engaged with events, food and learning, and get support for the day-to-day challenges of higher education.
But like any job during the Covid-19 pandemic, now it’s anything but straightforward.
With campuses closed and students pushing through the haze of Zoom calls and online classes, Hillels have found themselves fighting for far-flung students’ attention. For Hillel student presidents, adapting has been a challenge.
“How do you compete with all this technology that [students are] getting every single day?” said Lauren Hayat, the Hillel president at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s definitely not something we’ve encountered before.”
Figuring out how best to engage students has been “an improv game,” Hayat said.
After UCLA closed its campus in March, the Hillel there ran a variety of Zoom programs for students. They ranged from an event with a clinical psychologist to leadership workshops to de-stress events like Israeli dancing and game nights. (UCLA has roughly 2,500 Jewish students, according to the Hillel International college guide.)
At first, many students were engaging on Zoom. But as the spring quarter continued, “our attendance definitely declined a bit,” Hayat said. “We had to slow down on our events.”
Why the drop in engagement? Hayat isn’t sure. In-person engagement at Hillel usually decreases after midterms. Students may also have felt less in need of the support system Hillel offers, after getting used to life under Covid-19.
But the likeliest culprit is Zoom fatigue, as students — exhausted by video calling for classes — became less willing to actively participate in online events.
For some Hillel presidents, particularly at smaller schools, Zoom fatigue has been a big reason for putting a hold on engagement writ large.
“People don’t want to be over-Zoom-programmed,” said Hannah Epstein, the Hillel president at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., which serves roughly 300 Jewish students. Epstein canceled all of her Hillel’s programming for the spring when Union College closed its campus.
“I know what that’s like, to have back to back to back Zoom meetings … and it’s just really stressful,” Epstein said. “So I didn’t want to add to that for people.”
Part of the issue with running Zoom programming at smaller Hillels is also a lack of resources. Epstein’s Hillel director was laid off, leaving her with no staff and a two-person student board.
Epstein can’t even afford to send care packages to students, something Hillels large and small have been doing to stay in touch with campus communities.
It’s difficult “to have such a small board and to try to do even the bare minimum,” Epstein said.
Still, there are less labor-intensive ways to connect with Jewish students. Many Hillels are broadcasting Friday night Shabbat services over Zoom each week, organizing student chats in GroupMe, or turning to Facebook groups to bring students together.
In particular, regular Facebook posts, for students to see and interact with on their own time, seem to be the new trend in engagement, Hayat said.
She recalled how one Jewish student leader used the UCLA Hillel Facebook group to ask students to share stories of family members who had survived “exoduses or exiles.”
“That was a really meaningful and powerful way to bring people together,” Hayat said, “that didn’t require someone to log into Zoom, put in a Zoom code, and … be present at an event.”
Jewish college students on Facebook have also provided their own engagement without official Hillel affiliation. Groups like Zoom University Hillel (styled as a virtual Hillel) and MeetJew University Dating (ostensibly a dating group, but really, a forum for assorted Jewish student shenanigans) have helped maintain Jewish student communities, Epstein said.
Even as leaders work to crack the code for engaging current Jewish students, the end of the 2019-2020 academic year means that all eyes are on freshman engagement and the fall semester.
For many Hillels, in-person orientation days and welcome week events are the primary way they find first-year Jewish students. Planning for the 2020-2021 school year is already in motion.
But, without a decision from universities about whether, or how, campuses will reopen, any plans are a guessing game.
“We haven’t really figured out what the school year is going to look like because things can change at any minute,” said Julia Raffel, Hillel president at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which serves roughly 50 students. “We will just have to work something out that works for everybody.”
To share ideas, Raffel put together a GroupMe chat for Hillel student presidents across the U.S. “Not much has been said about the challenges of next semester,” she said, but then again, “it is all a brand new chat.”
Regardless of the current challenges and setbacks, Hillel presidents are driven to make the coming year the best that it can be.
“My hope is that incoming students will want to be part of the Jewish community, and that we’ll be able to continue to provide that home feeling, whether that’s virtual, or when we actually can meet up again,” Epstein said.
Lev Gringauz is a senior at the University of Minnesota and a former Jewish Week editorial intern.